Book Chat: Melissa Keil
Updated: Nov 23, 2021
Melissa Keil is an award-winning author of books for children and young adults. Melissa’s three Young Adult titles, Life in Outer Space (2013), The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl (2014) and The Secret Science of Magic (2017) have been published internationally and recognised in awards including Hardie Grant’s inaugural Ampersand Prize (for Life in Outer Space), the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards (2014), the CBCA’s Book of the Year for Older Readers (2014 and 2015) and the teens’ choice Gold Inky Awards (2015). Melissa is also the author of the Barkly Mansions series for readers aged 6+, illustrated by Adele K Thomas and published by Hardie Grant. The first title in the series, Barkly Mansion and the Weirdest Guest launched in September 2021, with book 2 to follow in 2022. Needless to say, I’m really excited to welcome Melissa to Book Chat.
Photo by Julie Renouf
Thanks so much for your time, Melissa, and congratulations on the success of your heart-stirring and frequently hilarious books. To begin with, would you mind sharing a little about your journey as a writer? Have you always been a bookworm?
Thanks for having me, and for the very kind words! Yes, I have always been a bookworm – since I was a kid, I was always happier with my head in a story than in the real world. I wrote quite a bit when I was younger, mostly terribly earnest fantasy short stories and failed attempts at romance novels, but I stopped writing after high school and for many years afterwards. I came from a pretty working-class, western suburbs background, and I really didn’t know anyone making a living in a creative field, and I knew no writers at all. It was only in my late 20s, after exploring lots of (unsuccessful) career paths, that I was lucky enough to find an entry-level publishing job, which introduced me to the world of OzYA, and rekindled my writing ambitions.
Your most recent YA title, The Secret Science of Magic, is a first-person two-hander, alternating between the voices of the main characters, Sophia and Josh, both of whom are very articulate and funny in their own ways. I was so impressed with this, and curious about the challenges you faced in taking this approach, particularly in regards to the differentiation of their voices. Did writing your novel in this way throw up any unexpected challenges?
Yes, it certainly threw up big challenges! I love character creation so much; fleshing out characters’ personalities, backgrounds and quirks, and creating unique first-person voices – I think it’s my strength as a writer, and it’s what I spend the most time on when I’m drafting my books. But Sophia and Joshua were the trickiest characters so far to get right, for lots of reasons. Both of them live very much inside their heads, and they both have quite intense, impassioned internal voices. They are similar in some ways, but they also have very different personalities, with different ways of seeing the world and operating within it. I really needed their voices in their alternating chapters to be unique and clearly differentiated from one another. But even though I could ‘hear’ them both so clearly in my head, it took a fair bit of work and redrafting to get right on the page!
I was very much in awe of the plotting in The Secret Science of Magic – you seamlessly guide the reader through many plot threads and a number of complex character relationships. How did you manage all of these elements while you were plotting and drafting the novel?
Thank you! I think Secret Science was my trickiest novel, plot wise so far. I generally structure my plots around the emotional and internal needs of my characters – how I want them to develop, and where I want them to be by the end of the book. I am very much a ‘pantser’ at heart, letting my characters unfold and developing the plot through and around them. But with two characters to juggle, and quite big internal journeys for both of them, I found I needed to do a lot more structural work with this book compared to my other novels.
One of the many things I admired about The Secret Science of Magic was the measured but absolutely believable pace at which its major events unfolded, and the pace with which significant changes evolved in the relationships between characters. Can you offer any tips to other writers grappling with issues of pacing in their own writing?
Ooh, pacing is a tricky one! For me, a lot of that is nailed down in editing, on my second (or eighth or twelfth) redrafts. I think sometimes you just need to get all ideas down first and then work out how the pieces fit together. Sometimes (frequently) I have to overwrite in my first draft to get what I need out, and then do the hard work of culling and tightening and reworking. With Secret Science, I lost a lot of words in editorial, and some entire early chapters when I was redrafting. These were bits that provided really great backstory for the characters, and that were necessary for me to write in order to get to know Sophia and Josh and figure out elements of their journeys; but which also bogged the pace down too much to justify keeping.
You bring a real depth of knowledge to the story, particularly regarding the main characters’ interests in magic and maths. Are these topics you are interested in yourself, or did you need to do a lot of research on them?
I was fascinated with magic, but I knew nothing about it, and maths was my absolute worst subject at school – so yes, I had to do a lot of research! Both Sophia and Joshua’s passions (and key plot moments) were sparked by things that I had read or seen and had jotted down in my ideas folder – an article about Russian mathematician Grigori Perelman (the reclusive genius who turned down a million-dollar prize for solving an unsolvable maths problem), and David Copperfield’s vanishing Statue of Liberty trick. I love doing the background research for my characters though, and spent a lot of time delving into these two quite disparate fields (though my understanding of higher-order maths is still scant, and I never quite mastered a single coin trick!)
Your new series, Barkly Mansion, is written for significantly younger readers than your first three books. How have you found the experience of writing for such a different age group?
So much fun, but a definite challenge! The concept for the series sprang from my love of sitcoms and all those warm, sweet, witty comedies with a lovable gang of mismatched friends, and I wanted to bring a little of that flavour to Barkly Mansion. Writing something for 6- to 9-year-old readers that had all of the character development and heart that I love in my YA books, but with just 35-ish words per page, has been a big but rewarding challenge! And working with illustrator Adele K Thomas has been a blast; it’s amazing to hand over your words to someone and have them bring the book to life with their own ideas and vision.
As well as being a writer, you are also an editor of children’s books. Does your ‘editor hat’ weigh heavily while you’re writing, or are you able to file it away until a suitable stage of the drafting process?
I do try to file that super-critical editor’s brain away while I’m writing, as worrying about perfecting every sentence as a first draft takes shape, or thinking about how something is going to be received, are sure-fire way to induce some pretty severe anxiety and writers block! It’s not always easy to do though.
What’s next for Melissa Keil?
Barkly Mansion and the Wildest Week, the second book in the Barkly Mansion series, will be out in March 2022, and book 3 is in production. Hopefully there are a lot more adventures with the Barkly Mansion crew to come! The Secret Science of Magic USA paperback will be released with a brand-new cover mid next year, which is exciting. I’m also working on the early stages of both a YA stand alone and middle grade series, but those will be a little way off.
Where are the best places for people to find you online, and to get hold of your books?
You can find me on Instagram (MissMisch77), my website (melissakeil.com), or the Barkly Mansion website (barklymansion.com). My books are available at all good bookstores or online at the usual places.
Thanks a million for sharing so generously about your writing journey and practice, Melissa. I'll be very excited to follow the further adventures of the Barkly Mansion crew, as well as your further adventures in YA and MG!